Effective Communication: Starting the Conversation – Jill Kochanek

Effective communication is based on the needs of each player and team. When coaches give players voice, we can more fully understand what our athletes need to feel optimally supported. This post offers coaches useful activities for addressing what effective communication means for their team and athletes. Though just a starting point, this session is an example of how coaches can start a conversation with players to glean valuable information about their needs and co-create team standards for effective communication.

As many of us finish up the winter season, I want to bring up a topic, which comes up a lot in my work with athlete and coaches: effective communication. This entry explores what effective communication means for your team and athletes. To do so, I offer a recap of a session on effective communication that I’ve facilitated with my high school student-athletes. You might consider integrating any, or all, of these activities as an off-the-field preseason session. These activities are meant to draw on team knowledge and co-create communication standards with your athletes. Reflection and discussion centers on several questions: What type of communication does an athlete/teammate need and when? What constitutes effective communication on our team? What does effective communication look like in action? Feel free to use, leave out, or adapt any aspect of this session to best fit you as a coach, your context, and athletes.

Before I overview the session, let me give some background on what led me to the “communication” drawing board. Last year, communication became a point of emphasis for my high school girls’ team. We started the season with a young squad, only one senior, a sizable freshmen class, and several returning players who had only joined us the year prior. Some might call this a “rebuilding year.” I cringe when I hear that statement because it can shift a coach’s focus from improving based on where athletes are at to a preoccupation with proving oneself (as a coach or team). When coaches adopt this mentality, doing so can come at the expense of athlete development. Optimally challenging (and raising the bar for) players becomes a more difficult task when we safeguard against defeat and lower expectations before our players even step onto the field. As coaches, let’s not fall into this trap!

Young teams might lack the foundational skills that you wish they possessed, but these groups present a unique opportunity for coaches as culture creator to establish—and reinforce—good habits. If coaches plant these seeds with athletes early on, they are more likely to internalize those behavior patterns and model them for new and future players.

As a younger group, we not only lacked on-field communication but also clear standards for what effective communication meant on our team. The mix of inexperience and diverse player personalities led to instances of ineffective communication: younger players feeling as though older players were bossing them around, and older players feeling as though younger players were not listening or committed. After a few conflicts between players, our coaching staff decided that the group would benefit from more an explicit conversation on effective communication.

Here is a breakdown of the session—keeping this caveat in mind: as with technical/tactical skill building, culture building and behavior change are on-going processes. One session on effective communication will not be a complete cure-all. Consistent reinforcement is essential for players, and coaches, to internalize desired values and actions. As coaches, we not only need to model these behaviors. And, we need to encourage players when they effectively communicate and own our mistakes when we fall short of doing so.

Effective Communication Session Synopsis

Activity I: Effective communication on our team
I started by asking the girls to think of a recent moment in which a teammate effectively communicated to them (e.g., encouragement, instruction, suggestion, or criticism). They wrote down who that teammate was, what happened, and why the communication was effective for them. This was meant to guide athletes to self-reflect on their needs, but also gave them a chance to recognize their teammates.

Debrief: As a group, we discussed their responses. I did not have each girl share their who-what-why, but took notice of which players spoke up (or did not) and who was actively listening. Several girls offered their responses, and I probed players to consider commonalities and differences across examples. We distilled these anecdotes down to key characteristics of effective communication on our team, which were honest, direct, & positive. With this definition, I emphasized to players that it’s not just what we say that is impactful, but how we communicate—that communication needs to be honest and selfless. Praise that is not earnest can undermine our legitimacy as the communicator and backfire. At the same time, our communication should aim to help teammates be successful—to build each other up—not break us down. When players know that teammates mean well, and are genuinely trying to support our success, they will be more open to receiving corrective instruction (or constructive criticism) and less likely to take feedback personally.

The first reflective activity helped our group established what effective communication means for our team. While we might define communication that is honest, direct, and positive as our team standard, I asked players to consider if, and how, effective communication might depend on the individual and context. Though we might defer to honest, direct, and positive feedback in most teammate interactions and team situations, how we communicate may depend on who we are working with and how they show up on that day.

Activity II: Effective communication as individual and context specific
I asked each girl to write down what kind of communication they need from their teammates (or coaches) when they are having a good day versus bad day. I clarified that the good-bad day scenario could be for a host of reasons, including but not limited to sport-related events. I invited each player to share her perspective with the group in this second activity. In this case, I wanted to give each person the opportunity to speak to her needs, and likewise teammates (and myself) the chance to listen and gain insight into how to best support each player. Here were some of common responses from our group:

“I am motivated by the little things. It’s a huge boost when you catch me, and let me know, that I doing the little things well.”

“I want limited feedback on my bad days.”
“Hold me accountable when things aren’t going my way.”
“I just want you to tell me what to do!”

“I need positive reinforcement no matter what kind of day I am having. I had a bad coach when I was younger. He would always scream at us, and it’s still hard for me to shake that.”

Debrief: Once players shared what they need in terms of communication, I identified some of the common themes and differences across our responses. Then, I circled back to our team captains and asked what they thought were key take-home messages from our activities for us, as a team, to take away from the session and how we put that information into action. Give them the space and agency to communicate to their teammates, establish expectations, and define actions. After they spoke, I validated their responses and asked if anyone else from the group has something to add.

This session is one example of how to start a conversation with your players to glean valuable information about their needs and co-create team standards for effective communication. Effective communication is individual and context specific—based on the needs of each player and team. When coaches give players voice, we can more fully understand what our young people need to feel optimally supported. At the end of the day, it’s not about us – it’s about them.

Facilitating a session on effective communication, however, is not a quick fix—it’s a starting point. Consistent reinforcement of effective communication when coaches catch players doing so is necessary for all team members to internalize those behaviors. Along with praiseworthy actions, coaches need to attend to “challenge moments”: when players (or coaches themselves) fall short of effectively communicating based on team standards. Coaches can use “challenge moments” as opportunities to reinforce desired behaviors (or acknowledge their own mistakes) and encourage athletes to see mistakes as a part of the learning and culture-building process.

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